Prime Minister Narendra Modi arrived to a warm welcome in the Big Apple on Friday, the city that has been there and done it many times over as far as world leaders go.

Yet, it was different. Modi's supporters had come in large numbers to stand around the New York Palace Hotel to be seen and heard as the caravan arrived. Equipped with dabbas of food for the wait, they carried placards with welcome messages.

Meanwhile, at the United Nations, Pakistan Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif was speaking and unsurprisingly raised the Kashmir issue. He said India had used violence, especially against Kashmiri women, for its “occupation” but Pakistan’s “commitment” to the Kashmiris’ right to self-determination was abiding. 

Sharif snubbed 
When asked after his speech if he would meet Modi, Sharif said that he wished the Indian prime minister good luck and walked on.

While Sharif was speaking inside, nearly 700 pro-Imran Khan supporters dressed in T-shirts with the former cricketer’s likeness were gathered outside. They shouted anti-Sharif slogans and asked him to go home which the beleaguered prime minister did a few hours later.

India sent a junior UN diplomat and used the “right to reply” to counter Sharif’s argument and that was it. There was no chance meeting since the two didn’t have a chance to cross each other’s path. One arrived and the other left.

New York police on the beat estimated that anywhere between 200 to 500 Indian-Americans, largely from nearby New Jersey, had collected on the streets near the hotel.

At the same time, Modi’s detractors too had a plan. Using the somewhat easy judicial path in the United States to serve summons on anyone so long you have the money to pay court fees, a Sikh activist who has made it his mission to serve summons on various Indian politicians, timed it well. A federal court in New York issued summons on Modi in connection with the 2002 Gujarat riots the day before his arrival.

Both Indian and US officials issued strong statements to say that Modi has immunity from any judicial process in the United States. He is “ring-fenced” in the words of Syed Akbaruddin, spokesman of the external affairs ministry. 

That said, Modi’s visit to the United States is interesting at many other levels. The enthusiasm of some Indian-Americans is unmistakable. As an observer of Indo-US relations for over two decades and having reported on several prime ministerial visits to the US, one has to acknowledge that the sentiment of Indian voters is shared by many Indian-Americans.

No bending

At another level, Modi may play tough with Washington just as he did with Beijing. If Bharatiya Janata Party general secretary Ram Madhav is to be believed, the Modi government will “neither bend backwards, nor forwards” for any country, the United States included.

Madhav, while speaking at a conclave organised by India Today in New York on Friday, did some plain talking. There was no effort to sound nice or promise things the Modi government can’t deliver. He went out of his way to emphasise that the Indian nuclear liability law – a big thorn on the American side – was passed by the Indian parliament and is unlikely to be changed.

He also stoutly defended BJP’s decision not to allow foreign investments in the retail sector, saying that the neighborhood shop was necessary for the average rickshaw puller because it supplied his needs. It was not a burden or a “shoddy supplier of shoddy goods” as a questioner phrased it.

What came across from an important BJP/RSS strongman was this: America is one of the many partners for India and not necessarily a country with copyright on India’s love.

Talking through tweets

There is no way to know if Madhav’s view is a serious take on Indo-US relations, since the Modi government rarely talks or explains itself except through tweets.

If it is, Washington may be a tad disappointed but it is important to point out that there is also a stream in American strategic thought which says that the United States is better off with many friends in Asia rather than a few key ones such as India and Japan. It is especially prevalent in the thinking of the Democratic Party.

The landscape, as they say, is littered with mines. And even an MRAP can’t really navigate it well. That is the “mine resistant ambush protected vehicle” that both Pakistan and India want.  How Modi navigates this passage would be a test of his skills.